COLUMBUS (WCMH) – Fourteen years to the day after five college students were killed in a fire, there are still no answers about who set the fire that torched the house near the campus of The Ohio State University.
Two Ohio State students and three Ohio University students died in the early morning hours of April 13, 2003, at a house on East 17th Avenue near Waldeck Avenue.
Investigators quickly deemed the fire arson and said they believed the fire had been set by the house’s front door.
One of the students who died in that fire was Alan Schlessman, who was celebrating his 21st birthday that night. A member of the Ohio State golf team, Schlessman was studying business.
His parents, John and Lori Schlessman, spoke to NBC4 at their home in Sandusky, Ohio a few days before the anniversary of the fire. They described their son as a kind and humble young man with many friends.
A few nights before Alan’s death, his parents took him to dinner for his birthday, along with a few of his friends, including Kyle Raulin, one of the other young men who died in the fire.
“I think back to that night, how happy he was,” Lori Schlessman said. “I was sitting next to him and his smile was so bright and I touched his arm and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s just so happy.’ And then our last time we saw them, he was driving away in his green Taurus with his friends in the car and turned-and this big smile.”
Rather than focusing on the tragic way in which their son was killed, the Schlessmans-John, Lori and Alan’s two younger sisters-choose instead to remember the 21 years they had with him. They said they’ve been fortunate to have supportive friends and family and a close-knit church community. They’ve also kept in touch with the other four families whose children were killed in the fire.
“The last thing we want to do is be any kind of burden on anyone else,” John Schlessman said. “Many people have had tragedies, and so we just try to move on, but also celebrate his life and the [lives] of the other young people too.”
The case remains unsolved, nearly 15 years after Alan’s death. Arson investigators told NBC4 they have not received tips in the last couple of years but that they’ve thoroughly exhausted the tips they’ve gotten throughout the duration of the case.
One man was arrested early on in the investigation, but he was released shortly afterward, and no one has ever been charged with the arson.
It’s not something Lori Schlessman thinks about frequently, but she still hopes the case will be solved.
“Every once in awhile a cold case thing will come up on TV, a show,” she said. “I think we’re realistic enough to know that that’s TV. It isn’t as easy, especially in arson. The evidence is gone and it’s been time.”
Still, she said, the family doesn’t want to see anything like this happen to any other family. But they’ve learned to live with their grief and do their best to turn a negative situation into a positive one.
“We were interviewed, I think right after it happened, and I said, ‘Whoever did this took our son. I’m not going to let him take any other part of me, the part that I need to take care of our family and live,’” Lori Schlessman said.
After Alan’s death, his family started a nonprofit organization called Al’s Clinics (alsclinics.org), where they raise money to support young people financially in the three sports Alan played: basketball, tennis and golf. They have given more than 70 scholarships in Alan’s name to young golfers who attend Perkins High School, where Alan went to school.
“It’s done very low-key, cause that’s the way Alan would want it,” his father said.
The family hopes the person who committed the arson will come forward.
“I guess I think that maybe the person that did this, at some point in his or her life, will tell someone,” Lori Schlessman said. “What a burden to carry, and I wouldn’t want to be that person.”